Whoever does no ill
Through body, speech, and mind,
And is restrained in these three areas,
I call a brahmin.
Dhammapada v. 391, translated by Gil Fronsdal
This verse and the next few are from a chapter called “The Brahmin”. Gil’s note explaining the term:
The brahmins were the members of the hereditary priestly class. In this chapter, however, the word Brahmana is redefined to refer not to someone born into that class but rather to someone of worthy conduct and spiritual maturity.
The Buddha often used words and images embedded in the culture around him and played with their meanings. In this case, he was directly challenging the notion of a superior person. He is saying that a person is not superior because he or she is richer, is born into a prestigious or famous family, or is very beautiful or handsome, or because of any of the other external signs that might impress us. Instead, a person is superior if their behavior is better, if they are more thoughtful, kinder, not self-centered, if they speak in a way that makes it easy for people to get along, or in a way that brings out the best in others.
A recent NY Times article, “Redefining Success and Celebrating the Ordinary” by Alina Tugend, pointed out that if all of us are trying to be extraordinary, success is not possible. We can’t all be (as Garrison Keillor would say) above average. But that “average” only counts externals, things we can write down on our resumes. Life is composed much more of the ordinary actions and interactions that we have every day. I recommend reading the article, which describes a funeral in which an “ordinary” life is revealed and praised by many of the people who were uplifted in ways large and small by interactions with the deceased.
We could all be called superior persons if the following words, the last ones in George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch, were reflected in our lives:
For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.